I've recently gotten into D&D5e and it may come up that continuing to play this summer will require me to be the DM at least part of the time. I'm at a point where other people doing the work of writing an adventure is appealing, so I'm thinking about running Curse of Strahd (the one that happens to be on the shelf in my FLGS, though I'm certainly open to alternatives). However, while I've GM'ed for other systems, and pored over the rulebooks enough to feel I could pull it off, I've never DM'ed for D&D before, so I'm not sure what to expect when it comes to balance.

Specifically, there are some players in my current group who made characters with a 14 in their primary class stat, because they liked the class abilities but also wanted to be good at other things for roleplaying/story reasons. I'd like to encourage this due to my personal style, but I'm also pretty sure that D&D rewards focus over breadth, at least as far as stats go, so I make sure my characters have a 16 (point buy) in primary combat/spellcasting ability plus at least 14 in secondary recommended ability. I believe this is about what is expected for low-op games.

As far as what I mean by "balance": it seems that at levels 1-2 it's hard to keep everyone conscious the whole time since they have so few hit points; better to anticipate a KO or two and bring your healing. But other than that, I'd like the encounter-building guidelines in the DMG to be accurate, for example this text from the DMBR p. 56:

Hard. A hard encounter could go badly for the adventurers. Weaker characters might get taken out of the fight, and there’s a slim chance that one or more characters might die.

I know these are pretty broad statements and CR can be misleading but I assume some playtesting has been done so it's accurate-ish on average. ("CR and expected encounter difficulty mean nothing, the only way to balance encounters is to have an encyclopedic knowledge/experience of all monsters" would be a disappointing but acceptable frame challenge, if true.) Overall I'm looking to avoid PC death but have a few "crap, we need to scramble/retreat/plan in advance for this" moments, and I'd like them to happen roughly where the adventure writers intended (assuming that adventures are written with some kind of dramatic pacing in mind, subject to random variation introduced by dice.)

I realize this may suggest D&D isn't really the right game, but right now I'm excited about the cool abilities and I like the idea of the system doing most of the work for you (and not having to learn/teach a different game). So if I do end up running D&D with these players, I'll probably put more time into helping them pick races, classes, and abilities that work well together mechanically... but how far do I need to push it if they want to do something different, if I'm looking to avoid re-scaling every encounter?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It seems, reading between the lines of your question, that you have some expectations as to how challenging encounters "should" be. Can you spell those out for us? I.e. what are your groups feelings on combat-as-sport vs. combat-as-war, PC death, "level-appropriate" encounters, &c. In other words, how far on any of those spectra would things need to get off-center for you to feel you need to re-scale encounters. Also, are you wedded to Curse of Strahd? That particular adventure may prompt different advice than published adventures in general, as it's got some interesting... features. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    May 9, 2016 at 14:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: comments are for clarifying content, not posting small or incomplete answers. Please use answer posts to submit answers instead. Prior comments containing answers have been removed. \$\endgroup\$ May 9, 2016 at 16:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 I believe I have done so; is that clearer? Also, I find your comment about CoS intriguing, and I believe it merits a separate question. \$\endgroup\$ May 10, 2016 at 17:46

3 Answers 3


Their characters are fine.

Optimization in 5e has very little to do with individual characters, and everything to do with the party as a whole.

Unless the players are highly organized, builds with high stats and dump stats would actually be a liability. I'll explain this by comparing it to Pathfinder:

In Pathfinder, each character takes on a specific role in which their competency, assuming the character is optimized, grows exponentially. For example, a wizard may invest a level or two into multiclassing rogue, and it's better than nothing, but they won't hold a candle to the "real thing." At some point DCs for skill checks and saving throws get so high that only a specialized character has a real chance.

In D&D 5e, a character specializes in a number of things, but this generally only means that they are a step or two above the rest. For example, say a wizard takes the criminal/spy background; for 99% of your adventuring career, that wizard can be relied on to handle duties that are traditional to rogues, though they will likely approach said duties in a different way. No multiclassing required.

This is because of the bounded accuracy thing. You always have a chance. Having a decent wisdom score on a barbarian isn't a waste. Hello, mind control!

Because of this, it's less important in 5e that you specialize. Instead you optimize by having your party, as a whole, make sure that all bases are covered. And redundancy is more likely to save your bacon than a slightly higher bonus to your already-high rolls.

5e adventure design assumes players to be sub-optimal

To some extent, whether individually or as a cohesive unit. So you don't really need to ease up on anything. In early stages you might want to give them some light warnings when they're about to enter a deadly encounter. A wake-up call so they realize, "Oh we should play it smart" is more than enough for most parties.

As far as what I mean by "balance": it seems that at levels 1-2 it's hard to keep everyone conscious the whole time since they have so few hit points; better to anticipate a KO or two and bring your healing.

This is not a consequence of the characters being built for breadth. It's a simple matter of how fast and deadly combat is in 5e. Perfectly normal for any party.

Some DMs will start tuning down encounters once players start dropping to zero health. Don't do this! They survived, they learned, they will be excited, they will be tuning their party up.

That's when you start targeting players' weaknesses. At which point, it's a good thing they went for breadth.

Total party wipeouts are not the end in Curse of Strahd.

Check out the Adventure's League Dungeon Master's Guide v4 that accompanies Curse of Strahd. Look under Jeny Greenteeth's spellcasting services, and the block on "Death in Ravenloft." This is a canon method for continuing the campaign in the event of everybody dying horrible deaths.

So by all means throw that coven Night Hags at a team of level 5s! They might surprise you and curbstomp the things. Or they might all die and come back with some Dark Gifts.

Challenge Rating is accurate but not precise.

You can read about it in the DMG. CR is based on Proficiency bonus, HP, AC, attack bonus, damage per round, and DC on their abilities. It is not adjusted for the special abilities they have, and how those can play with different parties.

For example, I've run Death House a few times. The Shambling Mound is CR 5. It's supposed to be tough, but parties have had little trouble with it. On the other hand, each party was seriously thinking they were going to die when I unleashed that pack of five CR 1/2 shadows on them.

The CR does not account for how a devious DM may capitalize on special abilities, or how a given party may completely shut an enemy down.

  • \$\begingroup\$ My only slight nitpick here is that taking a couple levels in rogue as a Wizard in Pathfinder isn't 'better than nothing': it's a whole lot worse. A wizard with no levels in rogue can be relied on to take care of all the rogue-themed problems much better than a rogue can while a wizard with a couple levels in rogue is basically a wizard two levels lower with an experience penalty. Still beats a rogue of the same level, though, at traditional rogue-type stuff. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 13, 2017 at 15:48

One DM's experience: Not only is smart play at the table far more important than having characters optimized for damage-per-round . . . my observation is that players that obsess over their statistics and spell/feat selection often do poorly in the actual game.

5e simply does not reward the "optimal" builds all that much. But it's easy for players to get stuck in a rut, spending their time worrying about how to get the most damage in each round, missing out on broader strategies. "Utility" characters have more to do in 5e compared to earlier editions. (Whereas most of the damage and save-or-die spells have been 'nerfed', most utility spells and abilities are fairly intact.) Controlling the terms of the encounter is often much more important than the pace in which damage is inflicted.

I haven't read Strahd, but the sense I get from what I've read is that in any case players had best be creative and make as few assumptions as possible in the course of play. I would encourage my players to create characters that they would enjoy playing and pay little attention to optimality. As DM, I would not alter the encounters on the assumption that the party is too weak until the proposition is genuinely proven. Let your players surprise you!

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a good perspective, but I'm not talking about optimizing as a play style; I'm talking new players where it doesn't occur to them to put their highest ability score towards the one that determines all their class abilities, leaving them with fewer options for successful use of utility & control spells/abilities, a monk with unarmored AC14, etc. In a freeform game that would obviously be fine as I could tailor the adventures to make use of whatever they are good at, but I'm specifically asking how published adventures are calibrated. Does that affect your answer at all? \$\endgroup\$ May 9, 2016 at 18:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ (And if so, of course I'm happy to edit it into the question.) \$\endgroup\$ May 9, 2016 at 18:48

My answer is coming from personal experience - I am currently running a group of 4 through Curse of Strahd for the first time in 5e.

As for balancing, I find its doing fairly well so far. Sometimes my players have jumped the gun and put themselves in harder situations then they expected but have always had the option of attempting to run away. My recommendation to the DM: Read ahead, know whats going to happen! There is a couple of times that knowing how the campaign is going to progress is integral to setting up random encounters. For example...

My players encountered a challenging fight along the roadside where I accidentally rolled the maximum number of wolves (3D6) to attack them on their encounter. This means the were fighting 18 wolves as a group of level 3's and I was nearly killing them. However I had read ahead and since they were already on their way to Vallkihi (or however its spelled) and I knew about the hunters from the Inn who hunt wolves in the area (which is where they were heading)... I had the hunters show up mid-combat and assist the adventurers. Story wise they had been tracking the pack and were attempting to catch up with it or trap them.

However that is just for the unfair situations that came about by accident. Overall I think that the encounters thus far (from level 1-7, including the "Death House" introduction) have been well balanced. Noting of course, that most of my players build their characters with utility in mind and have a variety of skills to pull from (I believe Cleric, Rogue, Paladin, and Warlock).

Now, speaking directly to stat priorities most of my players did place their stats properly (as recommended) into primary/secondary stats. They are all fairly well tuned for combat with averages around 13-15, and a few with negative modifiers. This has not caused any major issues other then the occasional situation where...

While attempting to chase a druid at the "Wizard of the Wines" winery, he accidentally tripped on the first round of the chase (with a natural 1, and a -1 modifier), causing him to fall into the open hole in the floor and hang upside down from the lift ropes. (I am sorry if he reads this - It was too funny not to share)

But frankly (as far as Curse of Strahd goes) it has not been an issue. In fact I think it adds a lot more flavor and excitement to an otherwise straightforward adventure.

Lastly a note about the listed CR in the monster manual. Although accurate - I don't feel that a lot of the fights are matching up accurately, or at least are easier than listed if played properly. For instance, my party has been fighting things 1-2 CR's above them, but they all heave a weakness or other fault that can be seen/exploited. With this in mind, most parties can easily get around the problems. And as always I recommend rewarding creativity. If they are playing a role-playing class, and they find better ways to solve a problem them smashing it with a weapon then make that a big part of the campaign.

My recommendation is have them bring silvered weapons. Most things you fight in this campaign are weak to silvered weapons.


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